The global report on human settlements, recently published by UN-HABITAT, is a timely pointer to what is wrong with current transport planning in India. Despite investing heavily in infrastructure projects, the cities have not resolved traffic issues efficiently. After reviewing various policies across the world, this report, with a special focus on planning for sustainable urban mobility, has rightly concluded that unless transport projects and urban planning are integrated, congestion on roads, inefficient use of infrastructure, and sprawling cities would persist. The working group on urban transport for the Twelfth Five-Year Plan has cautioned that in another two decades the average journey speed of vehicles on the major city roads would come down drastically from 26 to 17 km an hour to 8 to 6 km an hour. Along with it, the trip lengths and number of trips made within cities would also double. This would lead to inefficient use of fuel, inordinate wastage of time and more pollution. To address this problem, the Ministry of Urban Development has proposed an investment of Rs.23 lakh crore to build more roads and rail networks by 2031. The hard reality is that even this colossal infrastructure would not guarantee better mobility.
The main problem with Indian cities is the disconnect between growth and transportation grids. Unlike cities such as Curitiba in Brazil, public transport does not guide their growth. Real estate forces shape them. As a result, the suburbs either lie scattered or grow linearly. The distances between them, the core-city and places where jobs are concentrated increases. Developing a fast lane road network alone cannot change the inefficient travel pattern. What are required are compact neighbourhoods built around mass transport links. To achieve this, the National Mission on Sustainable Habitat recommended that new developments should not be encouraged unless local-street grids are developed, and they must abut existing developed areas with a minimum density of 175 inhabitants a hectare. These recommendations have remained only on paper. Where public transport exists, lack of last mile connectivity between residential neighbourhoods and station points in the form of pedestrian pathways and bicycle tracks has impeded their use. Cities have not innovated institutionally too. Only a few have created the Unified Metropolitan Transport Authorities to integrate different modes of transport and connect them with urban planning. Where present, UMTA is besieged with problems. For instance, in Chennai, the government is yet to notify the UMTA Act that gives it the legal backing. Comprehensive planning alone can relieve our choking cities.